Active Learning: What Active Learning Is and Its Characteristics, Benefits, Challenges

Learning is an essential part of life, and it is the foundation for personal and professional growth. While traditional classroom-based learning has been the norm for years, it may not always be the most effective method for everyone. Active learning is an approach that has been gaining popularity in recent years as a way to enhance the learning experience. This article will explore the concept of active learning, its benefits, and how it can be implemented in various learning environments.

What is Active Learning?

Active learning is an approach to learning that emphasizes engagement and participation by the learner. It involves the learner taking an active role in the learning process, rather than being passive recipients of information. Active learning involves a variety of teaching strategies and techniques, such as group work, problem-solving, and hands-on activities, that encourage learners to think critically and apply what they have learned.

Definitions of Active Learning by Different Authors

Here are five definitions of active learning provided by different authors:

  • Bonwell and Eison (1991) define active learning as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.”
  • Prince (2004) defines active learning as “learning that engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert.”
  • Freeman et al. (2014) define active learning as “engaging students in activities that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content, rather than solely delivering information through lectures.”
  • Michael (2006) defines active learning as “a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem-solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content.”
  • Barkley, Cross, and Major (2014) define active learning as “an approach to instruction in which students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem-solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content.” They also note that active learning can take many forms, including individual activities, group work, and class-wide discussions.

Characteristics of Active Learning 

Active learning is a teaching approach that emphasizes engagement and participation by the learner. It is a learner-centered approach that shifts the focus from the instructor to the learner, making them the main actor in their learning process. Active learning activities involve the learner in the process of constructing knowledge through inquiry, exploration, and reflection. Here are some of the key characteristics of active learning:

  • Learner-Centered: Active learning is centered around the learner. It takes into account the learner’s prior knowledge, interests, and needs. The activities are designed to engage the learner and promote their active participation in the learning process.
  • Collaborative: Active learning often involves collaboration between learners. This collaboration can take many forms, such as group work, pair work, or peer teaching. Collaboration promotes active engagement, social interaction, and the exchange of ideas.
  • Experiential: Active learning involves the learner in experiential activities that allow them to explore, experiment, and make sense of the material. Experiential activities can include simulations, case studies, problem-solving, and hands-on activities.
  • Inquiry-Based: Active learning is inquiry-based, meaning that it is based on asking questions and seeking answers. Inquiry-based activities can include asking questions, investigating, and analyzing data. Inquiry-based activities promote critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.
  • Reflective: Active learning activities often involve reflection, which is the process of thinking about and analyzing one’s own learning. Reflection can take many forms, such as journaling, group discussions, or self-assessment. Reflection promotes metacognition, which is the ability to think about one’s own thinking.
  • Diverse: Active learning can take many forms and can be adapted to different learning contexts. Active learning activities can include games, debates, role-playing, and many other forms of interactive and engaging activities.

Active learning is a learner-centered, collaborative, experiential, inquiry-based, reflective, and diverse approach to teaching and learning. By incorporating active learning strategies, instructors can enhance learners’ engagement, retention, and understanding of material.

Difference between Active Learning and Role Playing

Active learning and role-playing are two different teaching strategies that can be used to engage learners and promote their participation in the learning process. While there may be some overlap between the two, they are not the same thing. Here are some of the key differences between active learning and role-playing:

  1. Definition: Active learning is a teaching approach that emphasizes engagement and participation by the learner. It involves a variety of teaching strategies and techniques, such as group work, problem-solving, and hands-on activities, that encourage learners to think critically and apply what they have learned. Role-playing is a teaching strategy that involves learners assuming the role of another person or character to explore and understand different perspectives.
  2. Focus: The focus of active learning is on the learner, who takes an active role in the learning process. Active learning activities are designed to engage learners and promote their participation in the learning process. The focus of role-playing is on exploring different perspectives and developing empathy for others.
  3. Activities: Active learning can involve a variety of activities, including group work, case studies, problem-solving exercises, and discussions. Role-playing typically involves learners assuming a role or character and acting out a scenario or situation.
  4. Goals: The goals of active learning are to promote engagement, critical thinking, and application of knowledge. The goals of role-playing are to promote empathy, perspective-taking, and understanding of different viewpoints.
  5. Assessment: Active learning can be assessed through a variety of methods, such as quizzes, tests, and performance tasks. Role-playing can be assessed through observation, reflection, and feedback from peers and instructors.

While active learning and role-playing share some similarities, they are different teaching strategies with different goals and approaches. Active learning focuses on engaging learners and promoting their participation in the learning process, while role-playing focuses on exploring different perspectives and developing empathy for others.

Benefits of Active Learning

Active learning is a teaching approach that can provide numerous benefits to both learners and instructors. Here are some of the benefits of active learning:

  1. Improved Learning Outcomes: Active learning promotes deeper learning, critical thinking, and retention of information. Learners are actively engaged in the learning process, which can help them better understand and apply the material.
  2. Increased Engagement: Active learning strategies can make learning more enjoyable and engaging, which can help learners stay focused and motivated.
  3. Better Social Interaction: Active learning often involves collaboration and group work, which can improve learners’ social skills and ability to work in teams.
  4. Enhanced Problem-Solving Skills: Active learning encourages learners to think critically and solve problems, which can help them develop important skills for real-world situations.
  5. Increased Knowledge Retention: Active learning helps learners retain information better, which can lead to better long-term memory and recall.
  6. Better Feedback: Active learning allows for more immediate feedback from instructors and peers, which can help learners improve their performance and understanding of the material.
  7. Enhanced Creativity: Active learning encourages learners to think creatively and come up with new ideas, which can be useful in a variety of settings.
  8. Improved Teaching Outcomes: Active learning can help instructors identify areas where learners may be struggling and adjust their teaching approach to better meet learners’ needs.

Implementing Active Learning Strategies

Implementing active learning strategies can be a highly effective way to engage learners, promote critical thinking, and improve learning outcomes. Here are some steps that instructors can take to implement active learning strategies in their teaching:

  • Identify Learning Objectives: Start by identifying the learning objectives for your course or lesson. What do you want learners to know or be able to do at the end of the session?
  • Choose Active Learning Strategies: Once you have identified your learning objectives, choose active learning strategies that will help learners achieve those objectives. Examples of active learning strategies include problem-solving exercises, case studies, group work, and discussions.
  • Plan Activities: Develop activities that incorporate your chosen active learning strategies. Be sure to include clear instructions, goals, and objectives for each activity.
  • Set Expectations: Clearly communicate your expectations to learners before beginning the activities. Let them know what they are expected to do, how they will be assessed, and how long the activity will take.
  • Facilitate Learning: As learners engage in the activities, be available to provide guidance, answer questions, and facilitate their learning. Encourage learners to ask questions, share their thoughts, and collaborate with others.
  • Assess Learning: After the activities are completed, assess learners’ understanding and progress toward the learning objectives. This can be done through quizzes, tests, performance tasks, or other assessment methods.
  • Reflect on the Experience: Take time to reflect on the experience and identify what worked well and what could be improved for future sessions. Use learner feedback to inform your teaching approach and make adjustments as needed.

Implementing active learning strategies can be a highly effective way to engage learners and improve learning outcomes. By identifying learning objectives, choosing active learning strategies, planning activities, setting expectations, facilitating learning, assessing learning, and reflecting on the experience, instructors can create a more effective and engaging learning environment for their learners.

Examples of Active Learning

  • There are numerous examples of active learning in practice. In a science classroom, for example, learners may conduct experiments or simulations to apply what they have learned in the classroom.
  • In a language classroom, learners may engage in role-playing exercises to practice speaking and listening skills. In a business classroom, learners may work in groups to develop business plans and present them to the class.

Challenges to Active Learning

While active learning has many benefits, there are also some challenges that instructors may face when implementing this approach. Here are some of the challenges of active learning:

  • Time Constraints: Active learning activities can be time-consuming to plan and implement. Instructors may struggle to find the time to develop and facilitate active learning activities, particularly in large classes.
  • Resistance to Change: Some learners may be resistant to active learning, particularly if they are used to more traditional teaching methods. Instructors may need to work to overcome this resistance and help learners understand the benefits of active learning.
  • Assessment: Assessing active learning can be challenging, particularly if the activities are qualitative in nature. Instructors may need to develop alternative assessment methods to accurately measure learners’ progress and understanding.
  • Classroom Management: Active learning activities can be noisy and chaotic, particularly if learners are working in groups. Instructors may need to develop effective classroom management strategies to ensure that all learners are engaged and on task.
  • Inadequate Resources: Some active learning activities may require specialized resources or equipment, which can be difficult to obtain or expensive. Instructors may need to work within their budgets to develop effective active learning activities.
  • Cultural Differences: Active learning activities may not be appropriate for all learners, particularly those from different cultural backgrounds. Instructors may need to adapt their teaching approach to meet the needs of diverse learners.

While active learning can provide many benefits, there are also challenges that instructors may face when implementing this approach. By being aware of these challenges and working to overcome them, instructors can create a more effective and engaging learning environment for their learners.

Conclusion

Active learning is an effective approach to learning that promotes engagement, critical thinking, and collaboration. By implementing active learning strategies, instructors can help learners retain and apply what they have learned, enhancing their overall learning experience.

Bibliography

  • Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: George Washington University.
  • Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. 
  • Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education, 30(4), 159-167.
  • Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.
  • Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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